Legality and Morality in the Partygate and Djokovic Affairs (Final Covid Diary?)

With a promised end to restrictions in the UK at the end of the month, I’m hoping that this post will serve as my final Covid diary. Indeed, it now seems time to call time on almost two years of life-altering, state-mandated restraints. For all its raging transmissibility, the Omicron has thankfully resulted in very low numbers of hospitalisations and deaths. 

What continues to rage, however, are the fiery cultural divisions in society. There seems to be a perverse, inverse relationship between the level of threat of the virus and how mad and maddening we behave towards it and one another. Why is this? In large part, this is because the corona pandemic constitutes a moral crisis as well as a public health one. To be sure, we would be fooling ourselves if we thought that the last two years has simply been about health. At root, the last two years have laid bare deep and troubling metaphysical assumptions about risk, puritydeath

We’ve seen these cultural and moral assumptions play out in two recent events: first, the revelations of PM Boris Johnson’s attendance at mass party events in May 2020 and second, the deportation of tennis star Novak Djokovic from Australia. Both events raise two distinct questions which I will explore in what follows: 

First, the question of legality and fairness: were the rules created applied consistently and fairly (including, in the case of the first event, by those who created them!)? 

And second, and more deeply, the question of morality and reasonableness: are the rules themselves worth following? 

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The Rightful Place of Emotion in Human Decision-Making: Lockdown Debates as a Case Study

Reason and emotion both have a place in moral decision-making. And yet, as we’ve seen in recent lockdown debates in the UK, the important place of emotion in argumentation has been downplayed, even as it has dominated discussion in the background.*

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Why I’m Pro-Vaccine but Anti-Mandate

When it comes to the covid jabs, I am pro-vaccine but anti-mandate. 

I am, broadly speaking, in favour of the covid vaccines. Getting the jab is, on balance, a wise course of action. This is especially true for those over 50 and those of all ages who are clinically vulnerable. But it might also extend to those aged 20 and over who have no underlying health conditions. With the roll out of the vaccine in the UK, we have seen the reduction of deaths and hospitalisations and so the risk of serious symptoms has been mitigated. Conversely, I find it generally irresponsible not to be vaccinated, though I would want to reserve that opinion on a case-by-case basis. Nevertheless, at the moment I’d view the goal of as getting as many folks as possible vaccinated against covid to be a good outcome because it is the most effective measure for allowing life to continue while also reducing (of course, never eliminating) fatalities and associated health risks. 

But I must part ways from the extreme voices on the pro-vaccine side who are calling for the vaccine mandate, i.e. for citizens to be forced to be jabbed. Many are comfortable with the state using a variety of measures to compel its citizens to get vaccinated. What appear to be authoritarian measures are, on this view, justified if the goal of vaccinating more people is achieved. I am extremely worried about the measures being used across Europe to compel citizens to be vaccinated. At the time of writing, such measures include lockdowns for the unvaccinated across countries in Europe, the threat of fines and imprisonment in Austria, internment camps in Australia, and segregated areas for vaccinated and unvaccinated in Germany. My central disagreement with the pro-vaccine camp is with the means of getting to that goal of increasing vaccination. 

I dissent from the mandate position on three grounds: first, on the basis of the fact that it is deeply counter-productive to the intended goal; second on the basis of liberty and opposition to authoritarianism; and third on the basis of the precedent that is being set for coercive state action moving forward. 

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Matthew Crawford on the Administrative State

For my money, Matthew B. Crawford is one of the most original thinkers around just now. I first came across him via one of Giles Fraser’s editions of the Radio 4 Thought for the Day. On a rare occasion where the programme caught my interest, Fraser drew on Crawford’s Why We Drive to argue provocatively that God does not, in the first instance, exist to make us feel safe but to save and love us. I immediately went out and bought the book. Readers of this blog will remember Crawford’s influence on my covid counterfactual, my 2020 New Year reflections, and my final Covid Diary on risk and liberty, rightly ordered. 

In a recent piece for Unherd, entitled “The new public health despotism”, Crawford uncovers the intellectual history of the administrative state—more on that term shortly—and helps to explain the long-developing shifts that have disturbed many, myself included, in the relationship between the government and the governed over the last 18 months. It makes for necessary reading not only as a retrospective analysis but also as a prospective warning as governments, including in the UK, consider stricter “plan B”s ahead of Christmas. 

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Tribalism, Kimmich, Vaccines and Conversion

In the second piece in my series on Christianity and Tribalism, I argued that tribalism consists not of the presence of disagreement but the resentments held towards those with whom we disagree. These are expressed in how we treat, speak of and think about those who think differently from us.

Towards the end of the piece, I highlighted a common tribalistic move in contemporary debates—the injunction to “educate yourself”. On this view, the problem of tribalism is simply the existence of competing ideas. The solution is simply to resolve differences of opinion through catechesis into a closely guarded communis opinio

Only this week, I was sad to see a classic example of this tactic in the discussion around Joshua Kimmich who has, up until now, decided not to get vaccinated due to anxieties around the longer-term health effects (he remains open to vaccination in the future).

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Nigel Biggar (Politics at the Cross+Roads, Episode 3)

In the third episode of Politics at Cross+Roads, I had the pleasure of speaking with Christian ethicist, Nigel Biggar. Nigel is Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Christchurch College, University of Oxford. Before that, he taught theology and ethics Leeds and Trinity College, Dublin. Nigel has written on pretty much all the big topics in ethics and public life—war and peace, medical ethics and euthanasia, the nation, empire and much more. He also has a new book out on rights with Oxford University Press.

In the course of the episode, we discussed rights and duties in the context of the pandemic, thinking Christianly about the nation and the importance of realism. I hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I did. 

You can listen to the shorter podcast episode here on iTunes.

Courage and Competence in the UK Coronavirus Response: A Counterfactual

It’s fair to say that the driving motivator of the UK government’s response to the coronavirus has been fear. Fear of widespread cases and fatalities and fear of an overwhelmed health service. Fear, by and large, leads to, and is undergirded by, concerns with safety.

And there was much to fear when the virus appeared on the scene in early 2020. The virus was a kind of unknown; we did not know how it would operate. Indeed, it seemed to affect different populations, and different parts of a given population, differently. Fear seemed a natural response to the unknown. It seemed right to prioritise safety above all else. So, here in the UK, we went into a series of national lockdowns—two, in fact, as well as other measures that came pretty close to the life-altering existence that lockdowns represent.

Courage

But what if the government had appealed to alternative motivators for tackling this pandemic? Specifically, what if it had appealed to the courage of its citizenry?

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Hopeful Realism: Night Reflection for Compline (1 Peter 1:3-5)

Night Reflection for Compline, Trinity College Chapel via Zoom (Easter Season in Coronatide). Weds 6th May 2020

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

May I speak in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen

In times like these, death seems to be omnipresent. We knew it’s name before, of course. But in these days of Corona-tide, as some have taken to calling this season, we know with greater clarity the painful reality of death. There’s no mistaking the long, dark shadow it has cast over our nation’s public life.

In the UK, during the month of April alone, 25,000 souls were lost to the coronavirus. Just last week, in a single day 600 died of Covid-19—in a one 24-hour period, what is equivalent to a medium sized Cambridge college lost to the ravages of this horrible pandemic. 

It is no surprise that in times such as these, our assumptions about that most basic reality of our existence—death—are laid bare. 

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CovidDiary Day 19 (Weds 8th April 2020)

What if this quarantine is just saving middle-class lives? That’s the question raised in this New York Times piece. The article runs with the headline: “white-collar quarantine”.

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CovidDiary Day 12 (Weds 1st April 2020)

Reading the news about football clubs who are placing non-playing staff on furlough, I can’t help but reflect on the moral state of our contemporary economy. I am left feeling pretty depressed.

I’m depressed at the absolute prioritisation of profit over people. As Julian Knight (MP) has put it, “This exposes the crazy economics in English football and the moral vacuum at its centre…It sticks in the throat”.

We have made the acquisition of capital itself a virtue. At the same time, we appear to have abandoned those true virtues of philanthropy, generosity and helping one’s fellow man.

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